Kathak in Central Asia

Classical dance

Kathak in Central Asia
Their hands twirled, the bracelets tinkled, and the anklets jingled as their feet in silk slippers stomped on the ground. Young women glided by in ghagras and cholis, gracefully moving to the ‘Ta Dhin Dhin Ta’. Nothing particularly remarkable, only that these young women performing all happened to be Kyrgyz, and the place — Bishkek, the country’s capital city. Not a place where you would expect to find young girls and women so effortlessly do kathak, Bollywood and other Indian dances.

But what is little-known in India is the craze that Kyrgyz men and women — of all ages — have for India, Bollywood in particular. Kiosks and shops are dominated by Bollywood CDs. And on the streets, one is invariably asked after Bollywood stars. And hence this craze for Indian dances and music. And one woman, in particular, is helping cater to this increasing appetite for Indian art forms. That’s Sakshi Kumar.

Sakshi is petite and pretty, but it is when she takes the stage that she is both electrifying and magnetic. Her mudras tell a tale of their own, but it is her eyes that draw one’s attention, as most agreed when they watched her perform at a roadshow recently organised by the Indian Embassy in Bishkek. She drew the greatest round of applause. “I love dance, and I am so glad when people like my performance,” she says later. In some ways, she seems to be unaware of the service she is doing to her country, taking its ancient art form into the heart of Central Asia.

A love she has been relentlessly pursuing since the age of eight, Sakshi has been dancing for all of 20 years now. “I trained under Guru Pt. Jai Kishan Maharaj, in Kathak Kendra at Delhi,” she explains. She also holds an MBA degree, and among her many achievements has been receiving the Girnar Ratna Award last year, and performing for visiting US president Barack Obama, also last year.

For the love of dance

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) took her to Bishkek, and her task at the Indian Embassy there was to conduct kathak classes. And here she has been for the past seven months. Even though she does not speak either Kyrgyz or Russian, the affection and warmth of the people have sustained her.

“My experience here has been lovely. The Kyrgyz people are very warm and are in love with the Indian culture. They mainly relate India with Bollywood, and that proved a formidable challenge in an unexpected way.” Sakshi had to show that Indian culture had deep roots, going much beyond Bollywood. “People on the streets call me Anandi, sing a Bollywood song, or call out Mithun Chakraborty or Raj Kapoor or Akshay Kumar, as they try to tell me that they know India,” she explains.

She teaches at the embassy, where she has started a certificate course in kathak, given the huge demand for Indian dances. She also teaches at the National Kyrgyz Library and at a special dance school for school children (between 10-15 years) called ‘Balajaan’. Her students include dentists, cartographers, students, housewives, bankers, and also a few Indians who have gone to study in Bishkek, and range from 17-year-olds to those above 50 years of age!

For this task, she has been allotted only two years by ICCR. “Learning classical dance takes time,” she explains, “And I have to sustain their interest. Bollywood is fast, glamorous.” But here is where Sakshi’s talent comes to her rescue. Her students watch spellbound when she performs, her eyes speak even as her feet move, her expressions change in a flash.

Breaking language barriers

Kathak and Kyrgyz traditional dances do have a few similarities. And the make-up and clothes are close to the Bollywood dream that most Kyrgyz girls and women have. And that, in turn, keeps them motivated. After all, she has more than 50 students. And then, as she says, “Dance, in itself, is a language that melts all barriers.” And this was nowhere truer than with her young students at Balajaan. The students here spoke no English, and Sakshi did not have an interpreter. But she was able to teach her students the taal system, which they picked up within a month.

Today, they know the teen taal with proper words like ‘Dhan Dhin Dhin Dha’, and they read and do full tukda, tihai. For Sakshi, this has been deeply satisfying. And all her students love her! At the end of a 10-day children’s dance camp in the town of Cholpon Ata, where students from across Kyrgyzstan had gathered, almost all of them began crying while bidding Sakshi farewell. She admits that this kind of bonding also helps her. Her identity, both as an Indian and as a dancer, has seamlessly blended and enabled her to reach out to the Kyrgyz people, establish friendships, and foster mutual trust and respect.

Her students also love India and almost all of them want to visit India. They often perform at functions held in the Indian Embassy in Bishkek, and also in festivals in the city. Sakshi is now working on sending some of them to India to perform in the festival of Kyrgyzstan here. 

Apart from teaching her students, Sakshi often lectures and makes presentations on kathak in different institutions in Kyrgystan. She also performs with her group to disseminate information on Indian dance traditions. This young teacher now wants to overcome the language barrier and has enrolled herself for Russian classes. “For me, it is very satisfying to see the level that my students have reached within this short time. Communicating directly with them will enable me to inform them of the intricacies of classical dance. So, I decided to learn Russian,” she states.

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